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Grown: How to find, evaluate child care in Arkansas + get vouchers

by Nyssa Kruse | April 6, 2021 at 10:15 a.m.
Becky Caldwell, a staff member of Scholastic Academy Pre-School, makes chalk drawings with student Ja’Mea on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in front of the preschool in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

This story is a part of The Article, your guide to Arkansas news and culture, presented by the Democrat-Gazette. Sign up for The Article's twice-weekly newsletter here or to see stories that have appeared in past newsletters, go here.

Returning to work after welcoming a new child or moving to a new area as a parent of young children brings a host of challenges, not the least of which is finding quality, affordable child care.

To help, Arkansas’ Department of Human Services offers several resources to aid parents in the process of searching for and vetting facilities across the state, as well as information on getting financial assistance. Here are the basics.

Searching for child care

Dawn Jeffrey, program manager for a Department of Human Services child care evaluation initiative called Better Beginnings, said any child care facility that serves six or more children must be licensed by the state. Sites with five or fewer children can register with the state but are not required to.

DHS keeps information on licensed and registered sites and offers an online tool that allows users to search for child care by city or county, ages served and hours open, among other criteria.

Families can then look at the profiles of various facilities, which include information such as the daily rate and capacity.

The profiles also show records of any complaints made against a site, notes from DHS visits to the facility and the site’s Better Beginnings rating.

Better Beginnings quality ratings

Better Beginnings is a quality-measuring initiative by the state that rates child care facilities.

Sites are not required to participate in the program, Jeffrey said, but those that do are given a one-, two- or three-star rating.

Three-star facilities are the highest quality, Jeffrey said. Criteria to earn that rating include a high level of professional development for staff, written curriculum with documented learning goals, maintenance of portfolios for each child tracking their progress and other best practices.

About half of licensed facilities in Arkansas have a three-star rating, Jeffrey said, and the other half have one or two stars.

Jeffrey said the state is also in the process of developing an expanded rating system that will go up to six stars to further delineate differences in quality.

“We want to get it up to where 75% of our sites are three star or above,” Jeffrey said. “We're working on that right now as we speak.”

Important questions to ask

After parents find a facility or facilities they’re interested in, Jeffrey said it’s important to visit and ask staff questions.

The Better Beginnings website offers some ideas for topics to discuss.

Jeffrey said she particularly recommends asking about the ratio of children to staff, whether the facility has had any complaints in the last year, whether it is open year-round or just during the school year and what methods staff typically use to communicate with parents, such as email, phone call or text.

Once visits have been completed, Jeffrey said parents should also take into consideration their impression of the site’s physical facility and its staff.

“I always tell people, go with your first instinct,” Jeffrey said.

Vouchers and cost assistance

Some families in Arkansas are eligible for vouchers that eliminate the cost of care or reduce the cost to a smaller amount called a copay.

Qualifying incomes for the program depend on family size — go here to see the income levels eligible for assistance.

If a family is not eligible but still needs help, Jeffrey said parents should contact their county DHS office to see if they qualify for other assistance programs.

“It might be that you don't qualify for a voucher, but you might qualify for Early Head Start or Head Start or Arkansas Better Chance,” she said.

Additionally, Jeffrey said during the pandemic DHS has set aside funds for vouchers to provide essential workers with free child care.

These vouchers do not have income requirements, and she said they will be available until funds run out.

Jeffrey said so far 7,000 families have received essential worker vouchers and more are encouraged to apply by filling out a form, available in English or Spanish and emailing it to essentialworker@dhs.arkansas.gov.

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